01.03.2009

In the Company of Angels

In our rational world, angels are shedding new light in some unexpected places, as Margaret Evans discovers.

In our rational world, angels are shedding new light in some unexpected places, as Margaret Evans discovers.

When publishers engage in a bidding war and the victor pays out a handsome six figure sum, you know something very special is in the air. Angels maybe. And I can't help but think it's people like me who'll be making sure that publisher, Random House, makes good on its investment.

The book at the centre of this rare flurry of excitement in our decidedly downcast world is Angels in my Hair, already a bestseller in the author's native Ireland and set for much bigger things abroad.

Even a year ago, I doubt I would have picked it from a shelf or a counter in a bookstore, such was my ingrained scepticism towards the very existence of such ethereal creatures. But now, I can still feel the lingering sense of curiosity that first drew me to pick it up, a month or so ago. Author Lorna Byrne, a mother of four from Dublin, is getting exactly the same sort of feedback from her readers in Ireland, typified by a businessman in his forties who told her his eyes were drawn to the book every time he visited the bookstore, "but there was no way I could ever read a book like this and I put it down". But when, one day, he saw it also sitting on the counter, he succumbed and reveals in his email that he has never regretted the decision because it has given him back hope and purpose in life. As Lorna would have it, it's all the work of the angels.

A gentle woman whose extraordinary gift in seeing angels all around her and others - including me, as we speak over the phone between Dublin and Perth - has been both a blessing and a curse, Lorna's most enduring gift is her capacity to sense the suffering of others. And that, to my mind, makes her a powerful healer, all the more so because her modesty is equally intense and equally sincere.

We time our phone call for mid morning Dublin-time, so she can finish her school bus run ferrying her youngest daughter Megan "and some other little girls who live around here" through the heavy drifts of snow that have become the norm in Ireland and the UK this winter. No pampered star status or precious PR minders for this very down to earth woman who sees herself as a mother first and always, and who just happens, quite incidentally, to have an amazing interior life in the company of angels. She even apologises for being "a little hoarse this morning", while I am savouring the first hint of a cooling breeze through my window at the end of another scorching summer day.

Lorna is obviously humbled by the comments from strangers, many of them posted as little notes on her website "that no one else can see, only myself and God and the angels", that the book has changed their life. "Actually that's what a lot of people are saying about the book, that it's given them back faith regardless of their religion," she says in her soft Dublin lilt. "My breath is taken away because I see so many people of all different religions - and I have never seen anybody without an angel".

Growing up with my childhood experience of religion limited - and that's exactly the right word - to the dour Church of Scotland, Presbyterianism, where no angel would dare fear to tread even if his feet didn't touch the floor, I am perhaps more open than others to the idea that angels are no respecters of organised religion. As Lorna puts it in her gentle way," We all have a soul and that's actually what makes us all alike. It really doesn't matter what religion or nationality you are or even if you don't believe - you still have a soul and your own guardian angel." Lorna's acute sensitivity opens her eyes to the multitudes of other angels that come and go in her own and others' lives - her descriptions in the book of these various beings are at times quite breathtakingly beautiful - but there is always one steadfast presence. "Our individual guardian angel stands firm and is always with us, even in our doubting moments. Your guardian angel is the gatekeeper of your soul."

Lorna Byrne's intense empathy with the suffering of others around her, even those who appear on the surface to be successful and happy, has been forged in a troubled life where often her only friend was her own guardian angel. Her childhood was marred by a poverty we in Australia can't even begin to understand. At the end of the second chapter, her family home in a suburb near the centre of Dublin, literally collapses, leaving her parents with a dark brown milk jug as their sole remaining wedding present, the family at the mercy of relatives and her father, who mended bikes from his home workshop, without a livelihood.

Added to the misery of poverty was Lorna's distressing experience of school. Her opening sentence sets the tone for what is to follow: "When I was two years old the doctor told my mother I was retarded." The farsighted doctor based this judgement on her dreaminess and late start to talking - a candidate for an ADD diagnosis if ever there was one! Nevertheless, young Lorna was packed off to school to be similarly labelled "retarded" by her school teachers, headmasters and, saddest of all, her family. In fact, it's quite shocking to read the word in print in these hopefully, more enlightened days, let alone realise a young and deeply impressionable young girl was subjected to the stigma and social isolation of such an unfeeling label. At the age of 14, Lorna was simply removed from school by mutual consent of her parents and the school authorities and without a word of discussion with Lorna herself, her unspecified "learning difficulties" presenting a barrier no one felt able, or inclined, to overcome. It was a gut wrenching period, even for the reader.

It's still a sensitive issue but one I feel I must raise, if for no other reason than that this "retarded" student is now a bestselling author. As ever, Lorna Byrne, a healer above all else, can see the other side.

"You have to remember that back here in Ireland that is the word adults would use. If you had any learning difficulties in any way 'way back then', and that's what people have to understand, here in Ireland you'd be locked up. So I can understand why people would keep it a secret." Yet Lorna is only 54 and it's disturbing to realise such prejudices still prevailed at a time when other Western nations were at least beginning to acknowledge the existence of such difficulties as dyslexia and "attention deficit" and seek to address them, however clumsily. I remember it in my own family when a cousin of a similar age was held back a year in primary school so his double "difficulties" of left handedness and very mild dyslexia could be overcome. We've come a long way! Despite her frustration and what seems to have been a deep loneliness even within her own family - Lorna often speaks of having no friends as a child - she is aware it could have been much worse. She tells the story of a child with Downs Syndrome who lived out her seven years of life locked away in her room, a prisoner of a crippling and pervasive ignorance.

And, in case you're wondering how someone with such a profound learning difficulty could write a book at all, Lorna credits her "speak easy", surely Irish for a dictaphone, and some inspired and generous editing, all of it under the guidance of angels.

One of the chapters in her book is titled "Absorbing the pain of others" and this, to my mind, goes a long way to explaining Lorna's extraordinary connection with her readers. It's a role she's happy to accept because "in doing that role I know people are suffering less and that means an awful lot to me. It's heartrending and it rips you apart when you know people are suffering in that way. I suppose God has allowed me to feel people's emotions and to take some of that to help them to cope. And I don't mind really."

Success, of course, has come at a price. The book chronicles many examples of Lorna's powerful intuition, what others might call her psychic powers and what Lorna herself credits to her angels. They range from the joyous - a vision of a tall, handsome, red haired man whom she knew would become her husband and he did, and a knowing of future pregnancies - to the heavy burden she couldn't share with anyone else, anyone human that is, of knowing with certainty of impending death. In one striking example, Lorna describes her feelings of doom in the weeks leading up to the dreadful bombing in Dublin in May 1974 which killed 26 people and injured hundreds more. Such bombings in the south of Ireland were a rare occurrence and anyone who would doubt Lorna's special powers will be swayed by the intensity of her psychic, and even physical pain, in the weeks preceding this terrible event.

Of course, the mainstream media as latched onto her "psychic" power with all the scepticism and cynicism it directs towards anyone it perceives might be a fraud who could be enriching themselves at the expense of the vulnerable. The deeply vulnerable child who drew strength from her angels has learned to deflect such confrontations to such an extent she imply avoids using the term. "I don't do fortune telling or anything like that," says Lorna. "The book is to be open and for everybody."

Other interviews have been more sensitive and thus more revealing. Speaking to Irish interviewer Dee O'Donnell in a clip on You Tube, Lorna describes herself as "just an ordinary human being but I've been allowed to see angels". Her gentle advice to anyone watching or reading her book is to "just listen and trust and have faith".

In a world so lacking in trust and facing some of the greatest challenges in decades, Angels in my Hair is a trumpet call of hope. Among the many "little notes" for her (and her angels') eyes only on her website, Lorna has received one from a 14 year old girl who read the book after her young friend had taken her own life. "And she said to me why isn't every teenager reading this book and then they would never lose hope.

"Nobody is ever alone, even when you are feeling lonely and sad. Talk to your angels because they are always there with you. Your guardian angel never leaves you, even for second. He's the gatekeeper of your soul and even as you die, he passes over with you."

It's a powerful message that can do no harm. And, who knows, maybe even a great deal of good.

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